Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Ancestor stories.

I grew up always being the youngest. I was the younger of two siblings. I was the youngest of eight cousins. Although my neighborhood was full of children of various ages, there was a large enough gap between my cohort and the next youngest that everyone I played with regularly was my age or older. In a real sense, the world I lived in was one I inherited on an ongoing basis, and I understood growing up primarily as growing into my place in that world.

When I was twelve, that world changed remarkably when my parents separated. My father had always traveled a lot for business, and tended to be working or distracted when he was at home, so I did not miss him that much on my own account. But my mother was distraught, my brother added an extra helping of sullenness to his teenaged personality, and most importantly, there were no more holiday vacations spent with my large, loud, embracing extended family on my father’s side. My world was now a house divided, literally and figuratively.

My major concern at this time was to fight against any further division or loss. I clung fiercely to my best friend since first grade, if somewhat futilely, since we were now in junior high and the usual social sifting process was lifting him up to great popularity in our honors-class circles, while I stayed in my accustomed (and honestly preferred) spot as one of the kids that everyone thought well of, when they happened to think of them. Apart from my best friend, there was really only one other kid that I ever took the initiative to get together with outside of school. The new activities that I branched out into were always structured, reliable, and supervised: organized sports, math club. When left to my own devices, I read voraciously and taught myself foreign languages and practiced my basketball and lacrosse skills for hours at a time: I loved exploring patterns where every new thing found its meaning in relationship to the old,

When I was fourteen, two things happened in close succession that had a major impact on the rest of my adolescence. Looking back, I think the first had a lot more to do with the second than I understood at the time: my brother left home for college, and I starting dating a girl in my grade at school. It was not long before her family became my family, and my major worries throughout high school centered around being a good member of that family. My relationship ups and downs with my girlfriend were always deeply embedded within that context, and my attitude towards everything else was always deeply embedded within the context of my relationship with my girlfriend. I continued with sports and math club, and added literary magazine and language competitions. I stayed in touch with my two close friends. I drifted away from most kinds of unstructured peer-group socializing, and did not miss it very much. I lived in an undivided world again, and even though my brother was not often around and my mother was depressed and my father remarried and I had a new baby sister and my grandfather died and my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I felt I had to excel at everything without overshadowing my girlfriend, at least I knew the place I was growing into in this world.

***

It was Christian education that ended my Christian childhood. I was about 10 or 11 years old. I had been going to Sunday School at  a big white-columned Methodist church in a North Carolina university town since my family moved there right before I entered kindergarten. We were learning about the Old Testament, and one week, I just got fed up. My best friend was Jewish; his father was a professor of religious studies who wrote prolifically on the Hebrew Bible. The way I remember it, I announced to my family that I saw no point in going to a Christian church to be taught poorly about Jewish texts and history. For whatever reason, they did not try to convince me to keep going with them.

In high school, I attended Episcopalian services with my girlfriend and her family, but I made sure that everyone knew that I was not a Christian. I loved being picked up early on Sunday mornings to go to services in the Gothic sanctuary next to the planetarium, on the edge of the university in town. I did not know what I thought of all of it, from an intellectual or doctrinal point of view, but I was happy to pray and sing the parts I had no scruples about, and to keep my mouth shut for the parts that left me dubious. I even went through confirmation classes with my girlfriend, out of loyalty and curiosity, but I was not confirmed.

Those classes did nothing to change my view that Christian institutions and the people most invested in them saw the world as little more than a screen on which to project the benevolent triumphs of Christians who grew ever more benevolent and ever more triumphant from age to age. I did, however, experience two powerful moments of divine peace and love that left me shaken, simultaneously scared and excited. These moments stayed with me through college and my early twenties. However disillusioned I may have been, however many other paths I may have considered, I could not escape my yearning to experience more of that peace and love and, ideally, share it with others in a community of faith.

***

In my first marriage, I married into Baptists. My mother-in-law, the black sheep of her generation, was not religious in any regular practicing way, but all of her convictions and ingrained reactions were Baptist. My ex-wife's grandparents, along with one of her uncles and his wife, were pillars of their small-town New Hampshire fundamentalist church. They went on mission trips in their RV, openly gave Catholics the side-eye, and routinely said the kind of racist and homophobic things one would expect. I honored them with all my heart and soul. They were my family. We never once told them, my ex-wife and I, that we weren't monogamous. We came out to my mother-in-law a few days before we moved from Massachusetts to Colorado. I can't remember if she spread the word around the older relatives. I have memories that support either way. The grandfather died a few months after we moved, and after the divorce, of course, it didn't really make a difference anymore what the grandmother or aunts and uncles thought.

***

Amy talks about the rejection we've experienced from her family and Dave's family in several places on her blog. I am always hesitant to talk about it from my perspective.

In part, my hesitance comes from respect. That grief and pain belongs to them, first and foremost.

In part, my hesitance comes from shame. I am the direct cause of their estrangement from their families. I am the reason they no longer have parents or most of their siblings and nieces and nephews. I am the reason my daughters no longer have those grandparents or most of their aunts and uncles and cousins. I am the reason they have lost the very thing that matters the most to me--family. If our story were a science fiction story, I would be the scientist who wanted nothing more than to find a cure for some terrible disease, who instead unleashed the zombie plague.

In part, my hesitance comes from embarrassment. I have literally never met these people. How can I mourn relationships that never existed? People will look at me and mutter about me being melodramatic.

In large part, though, my hesitance comes from an honest inability to express what I feel. I never met these people, but I had reasonable expectations that I eventually would, that I would get to learn their stories from their own mouths, that they would learn mine. I don't understand why they've made the decisions they've made or why they followed the processes they did in making and communicating those decisions. I'm a lab rat poking at a button in my cage that doesn't do anything. It could be one of those buttons that gives you an electric shock. I would take it. At least I would be part of the experiment.

Amy's remaining grandparent is called Ponka. He's over 90 years old, a little distracted and a lot frail. He came over to our house once. It made me so happy. I bite my tongue on any direct or indirect request to Amy and Dave to arrange another get-together; it's not my place. And now I've put it in a blog post. Sorry about that, guys.

***

Amy also briefly talks a bit about my family on her blog. I am even more hesitant to talk about them. They haven't rejected us. They haven't embraced us, either. My mother tries the hardest. My brother and sister-in-law, not so much. My relatives on my late father's side all live in a range from North Carolina to New Jersey that seemed so spread out when I was young, and now seems like a small region very very far away. I am shamefully bad about staying in touch with them, even when they reach out, because I can't face even the possibility of small talk about my mother and brother, let alone anything more serious. I always had a weaker connection to relatives on my mother's side. It feels like a different, more significant kind of distance now, though.

I am sometimes relieved that my father and grandparents all passed away many years ago. Fewer people for me to disappoint, and to disappoint me. And that is sad.

***

Metropolitan Community Church, as a denomination, is a church with no ancestors. Established in 1968, our family history is one of rejection and exile from practically every other Christian body. We take pride in our survival, our growth, and our refusal to be defined by the haters. When we say "everyone is welcome," we back it up with actions much better than any other church I've personally experienced, not just for people with different sexual identities, but also with regards to race, class and theological convictions. But for me, at least, our location as the new church on the fringe is also profoundly lonely. For heaven's sake, our founder is still alive! May he live on for many more years in health and happiness, of course.

We're more mainstream than we used to be. I think we're past the days where the Catholics and Baptists would threaten schism in local ecumenical organizations if an MCC church tried to join. Still, we're not really embraced. I am happy for mainline churches becoming more welcoming towards same-sex couples and singles. I'm waiting for the acknowledgement that MCC has always been there. And maybe an apology. Some token money wouldn't hurt, if I'm being honest. Big endowments aren't a realistic expectation for congregations gathered no earlier than 1968.

***

The Bible talks a lot more about children, and descendants more generally, than it does about parents and ancestors. I sat down with a print copy of Strong's Exhaustive Concordance on a lunch break recently and compared the number of occurrences for "fathers, mothers, parents, ancestors, grandparents, aunts, uncles" with "sons, daughters, descendants, children, nephews, nieces." I won't bore you with the exact numbers, but the second group of terms had a much, much larger total. (The ratio is even more skewed if you toss out singular "father" and "son," because of all the God and Jesus references.)

All the big promises are about children, in one way or another. If you are childless and yearn for children, the Bible is full of inspiring stories and comforting words. What is there for those who long for parents and ancestors? There's the parable of the prodigal son, I suppose. And there's the images of God as a heavenly father and a protective mother hen. But even if one is comforted by God in a parental role--who then will be the grandparents? The great-grandparents? The aunts, the uncles?

***

Advent is the time when Christians anticipate the fulfilment of old promises, the coming of light into the darkness, when all the struggles of past generations are vindicated and redeemed. The holiday season is the time when Americans memorialize their family ties--sometimes joyfully, perhaps more frequently ruefully, occasionally bitterly. This year, I am finding myself, for the first time, unsure about what I am memorializing and whether my life would be recognized as progress towards fulfilled promises by those who came before me.


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